Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snowbound - Don't mess with Mother Nature

On Sunday night, December 26, a monster snowstorm barreled into New York City. By the time the snow stopped falling about noon Monday, better than two feet of snow was on the ground in some places. High winds continued to cause blowing and drifting until this morning (Tuesday). Shoveling was a Sisyphean task; as soon as one shoveled, fresh or blowing snow obliterated the work. Many homeowners just didn't bother shoveling until late yesterday or today. I was not one of them; I had cleared a path on my stretch of sidewalk Monday morning, and spread calcium chloride on the pavement. My wife could not go to work yesterday because the streets were treacherous when not downright impassable; two broken ankles are enough, thank you very much.

But the point of this post is to show how people made the effects of the storm far worse than they had to be. In Yiddish there is a word "knacker," (both k's pronounced) which has been translated as "big shot," but more often is used sarcastically to describe a person who thinks he's a big shot but he's really a stupid fool. We all knew a day in advance that the storm was coming. The Mayor advised people to keep their cars off the roads. In a storm of this magnitude, most private cars without four wheel drive, and even some with, are likely to get stuck in the snow and block snowplows from removing the snow and making the road minimally navigable. They also block ambulances and fire trucks, with sometimes fatal consequences. Did New Yorkers heed the advice? Too many did not. For instance, my side street had two private cars stuck in the snow, one traveling the wrong way up the one-way street. Knackers. Snowplows couldn't get through; luckily, to the best of my knowledge, nobody needed an ambulance and fire engines did not need to pass. We have a terrific Hatzalah here in Midwood, but even the best Hatzalah people cannot make their ambulances fly over a car that's blocking the street. And even a mild snowstorm presents the danger of unfit people having heart attacks shoveling snow. The drivers of those cars abandoned their vehicles; anyone stranded in a car in this weather is in danger of hypothermia. The cars remained on my street for hours until they could be towed away.

Scenes like this were common; knackers who thought they
were bigger than nature made life miserable for many others.

As if individual wiseguys with total disregard for the common good weren't bad enough, the city was inexcusably caught off guard. Again, we all had advance warning that this storm was on the way. That should have given all concerned ample time to prepare. For individuals this means assuming the worst. Roads will be impassable, stores will not be getting deliveries even if they can open, so stock up on food for several days. Bring everything that can blow around and cause damage indoors (cf. Ex. 9:19 in this week's parsha). Make sure you have sufficient supplies of salt (calcium chloride is more expensive than sodium chloride but it won't harm concrete) and snow shovels. If you are too ill or out of shape to shovel snow, arrange for someone else to do it; here's in opportunity for yeshiva students to earn hesed credit. Then hunker down. Don't be a knacker. Unless you are performing an essential service (police, fire, Hatzalah, etc) do not try to get to work. You will only make a bad situation worse - much worse - for yourself and others. Health care facilities that must be staffed need to make arrangements for skeleton crews to sleep in the facility the night before, so they will be at work when needed. For the City, it means be prepared. The Mayor should have declared a state of emergency and banned private vehicles from the road rather than relying on individuals to be civic-minded and stay home. The threat of hefty fines should deter most of the knackers. Snowplows, salt spreaders and their crews needed to be ready to clear the roads and the subway tracks. Elevated trains cannot run if the snow is deep enough to cover the third rail, and this time it was more than deep enough. One train was stranded for several hours in sight of a station. Without power the heat failed and riders shivered in the cold; luckily nobody became seriously hypothermic. The Brighton line (B and Q) that serves my neighborhood is completely out of service - Astoria to Coney Island - as of this writing! That means that people who might be able to get to work by train were unable to do so and were tempted to drive.

This storm was unusual but hardly unprecedented. People of a certain age remember snowfalls of two feet or more that crippled the city - for a day at most. Preparedness is the key. So is recognizing that nobody is bigger than Mother Nature. Don't be a knacker. If nature says don't drive, don't drive. We just have to live with the fact that we can't always get around in December as if it was May (those who plan weddings in wintertime - hint, hint). And the authorities must rein in the knackers and take the political fallout; that's what we elected them for. And don't hide behind "no money" either. Recession or not, we depend on government to provide essential services. Private cars blocked buses and ambulances, but they did not block trains. Failure to clear the elevated tracks is entirely the fault of the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and our elected officials must be held to account. And oh yes, get yourselves in shape so you can shovel your own snow next year.

Scientists are telling us that heavy snowfalls (we had several last year too, but not as bad) will be more frequent, ironically, due to the planet warming up. Warm air holds more moisture than cold, so when a moisture-laden air mass travels north and cools below the freezing point, it dumps its water as snow. What we had yesterday may well be the shape of things to come. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Res ipsa loquitur

This Latin phrase is a doctrine in American and British civil law that translates into "the thing speaks for itself." Roughly speaking (I am not a lawyer), it means that sometimes the facts themselves establish that somebody did not exercise proper care, and no further proof is needed. A news item that recently appeared in the New York Post brought that phrase to mind. Most of us heard about a brutal attack this past Thanksgiving on a 26-year-old male yeshiva teacher by two Gentile punks who knocked him unconscious, ripped off his hat, jacket and skullcap and taunted him with "Jew, Jew." The victim was unable to identify his attackers in court, which probably means they will go free.

According to the Post account, one of the attackers, when asked by a police detective why he targeted Jews, answered "It was something fun to do. . . they don't hit back." Am I experiencing time travel? Am I back in Vienna in the early 1930s when Nazi bullyboys beat up random Jews in the street? My father alav hashalom, an amateur boxer, mixed it up with them; we needed more Jews like him. Or are we back in the familiar neighborhoods of Brooklyn and so many other places in America, before the Six Day War, when young punks picked fights with Jewish boys for lack of anything better to do? Oh, and please don't call these bullies "toughs". If they were tough they would fight willing opponents in dojos and boxing gyms. These goons attacked Jews because they perceived them as weaklings who would not stand up for themselves. And that, Rabbi Meir Kahane taught, is quintessential hillul Hashem.

When I run through that same area in summertime, dressed in my summer getup, muscles pumping, some Hasidim eyeball me as if I was a visitor from outer space but nobody touches a hair of my head. I project an image that says messing with me would not be fun to do, and I'm over twice the age of the teacher who was beaten on Thanksgiving. Something is rotten and it isn't in Denmark. And something has to change. Punks who start fights with Jewish people need to be beaten so badly that they will wish the cops had gotten to them first. Let the word go forth that attacking Jews is bad for your health.

Res ipsa loquitur.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Hanukkah - A missed opportunity and seized opportunities

We are about to conclude the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, commemmorating the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucid empire in the second century B.C.E. Can anybody think of any other culture that commemmorates events that happened so long ago? It is said that Napoleon, having stumbled into a synagogue on Tisha B'Av and seen Jews crying, asked why. When he was told that they were crying over a temple that was destroyed some 1700 years ago, he answered that a people that still cries over a temple destroyed 1700 years ago will certainly live to see its restoration. From his mouth to God's ears.

We often overlook that the Hasmonean struggle was against Jewish traitors - Hellenists - even more than against the Greeks themselves. It began when Matityahu (Matthew in English) ran up to a pagan altar and killed a Jew who was about to sacrifice a pig to a Greek idol. The Greeks forbade brit milah, circumcision, and Maccabean soldiers forcibly circumcised the sons of Jews who may not have desired to have their sons circumcized. If the Hasmoneans had not persisted so doggedly, the Jewish people would have been swallowed by Hellenistic culture as were all other conquered peoples, Christianity would not have arisen, and the world would be a different place.

But when I step back and try to see those events objectively, I wonder if I myself and many other observant Jews who share my outlook would not have been Hellenists ourselves. Not all Hellenists were idolaters; many were attracted to the more attractive elements of the culture - art, music, theater, athletics and so on. The fact is that Jews and Greeks got along quite well under Alexander the Great (to this day we name baby boys Alexander), the Ptolemies and even the early Seleucids. We paid taxes and practiced our religion unmolested. Many Jews studied the Greek language and used it to communicate with the rest of society, while using Hebrew and Aramaic to communicate with one another. True, we had to coexist with out-and-out avoda zara (idolatry), but until the rise of Christianity we always have. And we were unable to participate in Greek sports because their athletes competed naked ("gymnasium" is derived from gymnos, the Greek word for naked) and circumcized men were not allowed to compete. Many Hellenized Jews had themselves painfully decircumcized in order to participate; our sources strongly condemn those who "abrogate the covenant of our father Abraham" (mefer brito shel Avraham Avinu). Now, imagine if Antiochus IV Epiphanes ("God revealed") would have been more tolerant and less chauvinistic. Jews and Greeks would have interacted more, and each would have absorbed whatever was most beautiful and uplifting in the other's culture. Jewish youth would have competed in Greek sporting events, but with clothes and without sacrificing to idols. Intelligent Greeks, who were beginning to see that the world was an orderly place governed by natural law, would have questioned their belief in a panoply of gods forever warring with one another; the Greeks made their gods in their own image instead of the other way around. Antiochus missed a terrific opportunity to achieve in the second centure B.C.E. the synthesis that was achieved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries C.E. Rav Kook taught that it was desirable to "bring the beauty of Yefet [the ancestor of the Greeks] into the tents of Shem." But then we wouldn't have the latkes, the sufganiot and the dreidels.

Battle was joined, initially to restore the religious autonomy that we enjoyed under the Persians and the Greeks up until Antiochus. Against all odds, the Maccabees defeated both the Greeks and their Jewish collaborators and were able to rededicate the Temple three years after the Greeks defiled it. But the Greeks were still ensconced in the Akra fort in or near Jerusalem, and in their many pagan cities (polises) throughout Judah. The Hasmoneans realized that as long as the Greeks held the high ground they would be a constant threat, militarily and culturally. They saw an opportunity to throw them out of the country altogether and they seized it, restoring Jewish political independence for the first time since the fall of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. The later Hasmonean rulers adopted Greek names (Hyrcanus, Aristobolus and such) and Greek customs, and became Tzedokim (Sadducees), so it might be argued that the Hellenists won after all, but we enjoyed an unparalleled flowering of Torah scholarship as well as material prosperity. As Mahatma Gandhi reportedly asked the British viceroy of India, who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of strangers?

Hanukkah presents us with at least two opportunities to seize. One is the rediscovery that we have bodies and we have to make and keep them strong to optimize our avodat Hashem. Hey, if God wanted disembodied Holy Ghosts he would have made them. It is said that any literary or cultural movement that comes to the larger society gets to us one or two generations later. Physical fitness became prominent in the mass culture in the 1960s and 1970s; that's when I started lifting and running. But I would see few other Jews at the races. Once in a while a race would be held the Sunday of Hanukkah, and I would run it in a top I made for the purpose, complete with tzitzit; click here and here. When people would ask about the tzitzit, I would explain that in Greek times Jewish athletes would have themselves decircumcized in order to run with the Greeks, so now I'm running while proudly showing the world who I am. Today more and more observant Jews are running (and working out in gyms) and there is even a Jewish running club in Brooklyn: JRunners.

The second opportunity concerns bridging the chasm between religious and secular Jews here and especially in Israel. Hanukkah is a holiday that appeals powerfully to both camps. To us it represents the miraculous victory of Torah over evil forces that would have destroyed it. To the secularists it represents the equally miraculous victory of Jewish fighters restoring Jewish sovereignty on Jewish soil. But they are two sides of the same coin. We can study Torah under foreign domination, but with the proverbial Greeks in the Akra, a constant threat hanging over our heads. And the Torah itself becomes distorted, since authentic Torah is predicated on normality, i.e. Jews running their own affairs and working their own soil.

Carpe diem.

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